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The Atlantic Monthly | March 2001
ne of the unremarked characteristics of the dispute last fall over a "full, fair, and accurate" count of the presidential ballots cast in Florida is the extent to which the idea of accuracy itself has come to occupy the status of a primal good—joining prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude as the fifth cardinal virtue (maybe the only one left). Presidential politics aside, the frontiers of accuracy have recently registered advances in a variety of directions. The initial layout of the Great Pyramid at Giza, it turns out, can now be dated more accurately than ever before—to about 2478 B.C.—because it appears to have been precisely aligned in accordance with a particular astronomical configuration. The average normal temperature of the human body was not long ago recalibrated to 98.2°, replacing the traditional 98.6°, and last year researchers in the United States and Canada, making use of a computer-controlled Thermal Manikin Head in a wind tunnel, proposed long-overdue adjustments to the formula for the wind-chill factor. In 1999 the official height of Mount Everest was adjusted upward by seven feet (to 29,035 feet), and the summit was moved slightly to the northeast.
Is accuracy overrated?
by Cullen Murphy
Issues of accuracy arise everywhere. At the service entrance of my office building a Muslim man folds himself into an attitude of prayer. Is he aware, I wonder, of the controversy over the correct qibla from North America—that is, the direction in which the devout should be oriented in order to be facing Mecca? (Some Muslims favor the southeast, but according to the magazine Islamic Horizons, spherical trigonometry suggests a northeasterly direction.) Is he aware of how the exactitudes of astronomical and atmospheric science have altered and even made irrelevant the traditional practice of "moonsighting" to detect the precise end of Ramadan?
During the past hundred years or so, according to the authors of The First Measured Century, a companion volume to a recent PBS documentary, Americans made themselves into "the most energetic measurers" in history: "Numerical thinking became the discourse of public life." Needless to say, all of us would agree that a substantial amount of accuracy, numerical and otherwise, is in the broader social interest. During NATOs's 1999 war against Yugoslavia, the inability to locate the address No. 2 Bulevar Umetnosti, in Belgrade, caused three precision-guided bombs to miss a Yugoslav military installation and slam into the Chinese embassy. A failure by scientists at NASA and the Lockheed Martin Corporation to convert certain calculations from the English measurement system into the metric system resulted in the loss of the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft. In 1996 an error in the transcription of an interview conducted by a writer for The New Yorker caused the commentator William Bennett to be quoted as saying of Patrick Buchanan's political views, "it's a real S & M kind of thing," whereas Bennett had actually said, "it's a real us-and-them kind of thing." At about the same time, a woman in Redding, California, noticed that she didn't have enough ketchup to put in her meat loaf—leading to the discovery of a slight underfilling of certain bottles (the inadvertent result of a new design) and the payment by the H. J. Heinz Company of $180,000 in civil penalties. Heinz last year also agreed to add some 10 million ounces of ketchup to its overall output, in tiny increments per bottle, in order to remedy past shortfalls.
ut when does the quest for accuracy become overbearing? Almost everyone can now own instruments pinpointing his or her exact location on the planet with reference to the satellite-based Global Positioning System. Even cattle are linked to the GPS: so-called cow-whisperer devices, attached to collars, convey recorded instructions ("gee," "haw") and enable ranchers to move herds among remote pasturelands. The accuracy of IQ as a gauge of intelligence may be debated, but IQ has nonetheless been joined by Technology Quotient, Anger Quotient, Happiness Quotient, Sexual Quotient, Emotional Quotient, and a host of other indices. The pursuit of accuracy becomes more and more particular. A study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that, other variables being constant, the metabolic expenditure of continual gum-chewing during all waking hours will in the course of a year bring about a five-kilogram reduction in body weight. Now that the accuracy of genetic evidence in proving guilt or innocence is beyond dispute, DNA-sampling kits may become a staple of personal hardware. A device called Defender-DNA is already being advertised:
Should the perpetrator come within reach, the slightest jab will activate the alarm, expose the pin under the retractable cover and cause [a] tiny collection probe to pierce the attacker's skin, gathering an identifying DNA sample.
To be sure, familiar figures of speech continue to expose a lack of accuracy to censure: "Close enough for government work." "Close doesn't count except in horseshoes and hand grenades." "Close, but no cigar." The online newsmonger Matt Drudge has been ridiculed by some media critics for stating that his reports are "80 percent accurate." And yet there are times when strict accuracy is actually undesirable. The extra leg in Picasso's Paul en Arlequin is an essential part of the painting's appeal. The poems of Shakespeare and Donne are filled with inept rhymes that brook no improvement. In typography the size of some letters must often be crafted slightly "wrong" in order to look "right." Translators resort to inaccuracy all the time: In Play It Again, Sam, Woody Allen tells Diane Keaton that he was thinking of Willie Mays while they were having sex; I saw the movie in France, where the subtitle rendered "Willie Mays" as "Pélé." Accuracy in music may be unusually subjective, but one critic I know believes that the singer Betty Carter had such perfect pitch that she could always be a quarter-tone sharp just for effect. Labored accuracy is no ideal: There's a story about Thelonious Monk's impatiently ordering a musician, "Don't be perfect!"
We are cautious these days, fastidious, hedging claims with phrases like "plus or minus" and "margin of error." And yet it was confident inaccuracy that sent Columbus on his voyage of discovery; a better grasp of reality would have kept him home. Pope Alexander VI was working completely in the dark when he promulgated a Line of Demarcation, dividing the New World between Spain and Portugal before South America had even been discovered—an act that ensured that the future would one day enjoy not only Ibrahim Ferrer but also Bebel Gilberto. In the realm of sports, referees and umpires make inaccurate calls all the time; the vein-bulging test of wills that may ensue is aesthetically far more satisfying than any videotape-replay decree. Inaccuracy can bring immortality with an assurance that accuracy often fails to muster. William H. "Red" Friesell went on to become a successful real-estate agent, but he knew in 1940 that the lead paragraph in his obituary would identify him as the referee who mistakenly gave Cornell a fifth down and a victory over Dartmouth.
The truth is, we don't know how much accuracy we really want (or can stand). The Parthenon and all the statuary of ancient Greece were once painted in bright colors. Don't they look a lot better now? A few months ago it was discovered that some of the most memorable prime-ministerial radio speeches of World War II were given not by Winston Churchill but by the actor Norman Shelley, who sometimes served as Churchill's radio voice. Well, fine. An unfortunate Notre Dame fan made the news several years ago when he sued after a tattoo artist indelibly etched the misspelling "Fighing Irish" on his arm. Do we truly wish that this had never happened? Ordinary language is peppered with phrases that give all of us license to take liberties and indulge in blatant self-contradiction: "Be that as it may ..." "At the same time ..." "Even so ..." "Having said that ..." Nowadays most reputable newspapers put aside a few inches every day to confess error; I suspect, however, that what most readers take away from such columns is not appreciation for the retrospective accuracy but gratitude for the original mistake. Here is a notice that appeared last year in The (London) Observer:
In the Review's special summer reading issue of 2 July we wrongly ascribed a reading list to Roddy Doyle, the celebrated Irish author. Unfortunately, owing to a misunderstanding, the 'Roddy Doyle' we spoke to, and who gave us a very interesting selection of summer reading, was a computer engineer from north London.
esiderius Erasmus indulged a certain amount of skepticism about the human capacity to get to the bottom of things with any accuracy at all. In his Praise of Folly he took on scholars and divines and their endless explorations of branches of learning that seemed only to "torment the wits of man." Speaking in the personified voice of Folly, Erasmus urged the rest of us not to lose any sleep over this.
Now I believe I can hear the philosophers protesting that it can only be misery to live in folly, illusion, deception, and ignorance. But it isn't—it's human. I don't see why they call it a misery when you're all born, formed, and fashioned in this pattern, and it's the common lot of all mankind. There's no misery about remaining true to type.
Erasmus was only kidding, of course, more or less. He didn't believe that ignorance was bliss, but he did appreciate how the zealous pursuit of one form of knowledge can blind us to another.
Once, at a Little League game, I was press-ganged into calling balls and strikes, after a competent authority failed to show up. With radarlike precision I calibrated the target zone and assessed each incoming pitch. My eye was unerring, my concentration intense. Soon the count stood at three and two. The pitcher eyed his quarry, went into the windup, and threw. My strike-zone telemetry signaled low and outside, and permitted one verdict only. I told the batter to take his base.
From a score of spectators came a single observation: "But he swung and missed!"
Illustration by Greg Clarke.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2001; Fine Points - 01.03; Volume 287, No. 3; page 14-15.